Review by Matt
Remember when your grandmother would tell you about the good ole days walking to school uphill both ways, when they played outside instead of in front of a screen for hours. For the environment those good ole days came before the 1890’s when there was less pollution in the air and water. There were less dams changing the habitat and less destroying of the ecosystem by new technologies, population explosions and the growth and expansion of urban areas.
Children today can’t imagine life without television or computers and the internet. That is non-realization of how things used to be and what they could be like is something J.R. McNeill says we’re living in with our environment. In his last chapter of Something New Under the Sun he said how we would need to live 700 to 7,000 years to truly understand what we’re doing to the environment and how it has changed.
McNeill’s main thesis is about how the period from 1890-1960 is unique in the extent and intensity of changes in the natural environment and human agency is the central in causing those changes. Around this time societies and economies were growing so rapid and fast different things began being built for people and urbanizations to thrive but it deteriorated the land. Things like dams were constructed to try to control the water while it changed what happened to its surroundings. Pollution was probably the most major problem in the air and water. Factories and other man-made places would dump or release its wastes to build things to better the economy without seeing it was killing off species and destroying the land, water, air and atmosphere around it.
McNeill used over 1,000 sources from different books, research reports and thesis, which are listed in his over 40 pages of bibliography. He used those stats and information to push his point of how our industrial and economical growth has hampered nature. I thought the most informational information was in the tables though, like table 12.1 on page 360 I thought wrapped the book up in a nutshell. It showed the increases in things from the 1890’s to the 1990’s. While the industrial output went up 40 percent, marine’s fish catching went up 35 percent the urban population continued to grow things like the blue and fin whale population nearly went extinct down over 97 percent. A continued theme in our class has been deforestation which was also down 20 percent due to the economic and industrial revolution.
I view a lot of what he talks about as a tragedy at the commons. It seems like all these corporations that polluted in the air or water thought that they just could a little – or a lot – and things would still be ok. But when every business in town, or the one main industry is flushing tons of waste in the local river killing the fish and species around it the commons is the river and things that live inside of it or depend on its water. McNeill explained how initially water pollution was a local matter that affected the cities it was in. But as industries and civilizations grow so did the damages of pollution. In cases like Lake Erie and the Baltic Sea it changed the chemistry and ecosystems in those entire areas.
My problem with the book is it is like a huge warning sign, without really having any solutions. Obviously we need to stop polluting and drastically changing the ecosystem as he states in the last chapter it will be a very, very rough future for us. How the only thing that might destroy us is the earth itself. It seems like this book is like when the check engine light comes on in your car; you know there is a major problem you need to address or your car could have devastating problems but you don’t know what it is and how it will really effect you.
Review by Mary
When looking back at the 20th century, people will remember the Cold War, the roaring 20’s, the Holocaust, and many prominent events that made up this life changing century. J.R. McNeill in his novel Something New Under the Sun attempts to inform readers that it is not these historical events that have changed the future, but rather environmental change that has made the biggest impact. McNeill states his opinion when he writes, "The human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I think, this will appear as the most important aspect of twentieth-century history, more so than World War II, the communist enterprise, the rise of mass literacy, the spread of democracy, or the growing emancipation of women” (Page 4). This quote shows that although many may consider these key historical events as the biggest impact of the century, the environment is what people are ignoring when it comes to changes throughout the world.
McNeill’s book attempts to inform readers on the environmental changes that have occurred throughout the 20th century that will essentially impact our world to come. He chooses to focus on the idea that with the turn of the 1900’s we have “something new under the sun” and that is the relationship between humans and their environment. Through the analysis of the rise in technology and the increased use of natural resources, McNeill is able to emphasize the idea that humans are affecting the environment in a negative matter. We are able to see the shocking impact of the 20th century when we look at the chart on page 360-361. All of these factors such as human population increasing by 4% and air pollution increasing around 5% drive home McNeill’s argument. This book is an attempt to make readers aware of the impact humans can have on an environmental society.
Through the use of various examples around the world McNeill is able to back up his argument with evidence. His examples ranging from the Hoover Dam to the coketown cluster of the United States he is able to portray his ideas. He uses numerous footnotes and a bibliography to establish the quality of his work. In my opinion the numerous examples further emphasizes and makes the issue of overuse a real life problem we need to take a look at.
Overall I believe that McNeill’s argument provides a rising problem that needs to be fixed. Through his use of industrialization to show the impact the pollution can have on a society, as well as the water system being depleted and overused. I agree with McNeill in the fact that we need to fix the way we use our environment and work towards obtaining a more sustainable environment for generations to come. The only issue that I tend to disagree with is McNeill’s solution to fix this rising problem. He seems to not have a full grasp on what needs to be done to cope with the environmental degradation. In order to show that he truly cares about this subject I think that McNeill should have provided a more adequate detailed solution to this problem. McNeill provides us with all these charts, facts, and examples and then can’t provide a solution, which creates an overall lack of conclusion for the book. I believe that had McNeill provided a stronger solution, more people would turn to his book in order to make the change they wish to see in this world. It seems that although we can attempt to cope with the rise of environmental overuse, it will continue to be a problem for years to come with little change being made to fix it.
Something New Under the Sun is a wonderful start in the direction of sustainable resources. This book is helpful for those hoping to understand the 20th century as a whole and the impact this century has made on the environment. It provides many examples that can be used to inform people that our use of the environment affects the outcome of the future. This book has contributed largely to the idea that we need to think about how we are using our environment and resources because they will eventually run out and become depleted.
Review by Aaron C.
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World by J.R. McNeill is a book about just that, the environmental history throughout the course of the twentieth century leading up to the present. This novel by J.R. McNeill covers the environmental history of the twentieth century and how the environment impacted the course of events in the twentieth century and how the decisions made by people during this same time frame impacted the environment. McNeill explains throughout this book the negative and positive consequences that have come from the twentieth century in regards to the environment and the lasting effects they may have into the present day. In his novel, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeill was effective in raising awareness that humans relationship with the nature in order to preserve nature and ourselves needs to change.
J.R. McNeill used many sources to examine and show the relationship between humans and nature and the impact they have on each other and to show that the relationship needed to change. McNeill used a variety of both primary and secondary sources that improved the effectiveness of the novel. Of these sources used McNeill successfully used many sources that were visual aids that effectively proved his point. An example of this is when he used the picture on page seventy-three that showed a picture of the Los Angeles smog in chapter three when relating the Atmosphere and air pollution to Smog Cities. Also, he used other primary and secondary sources such as tables and graphs to effectively prove his points. He used these effectively when proving his point on air pollution and its impacts on the atmosphere as they pertain to metal emissions and as they correlate to urban history.
Although McNeill uses these sources and effectively proves his points with these multiple sources which add to the validity of the novel there points in the paper where he uses to many sources. This is shown on pages fifty-nine and three-hundred twenty-nine where McNeill uses five sources on just one page. This is the one major way Something New Under the Sun is ineffective because these sources add unnecessary bulkiness to the novel, but do add to the effectiveness because they add validity to his argument.
In the novel Something New Under the Sun J.R. McNeill proves his point effectively because he wrote the novel with great organization. The novel began with great organization and held the organization throughout the novel. Throughout the novel McNeill followed many different forms of organization each as effective as the next. One form of organization he used that helped to make his novel effective is the chronological organization. In each chapter he started with the earliest date and came down in time to the most recent. Another form of organization he used was thematic or conceptual organization. He did this by focusing each chapter on different ideas like politics or the atmosphere.
McNeill’s novel Something New Under the Sun is important to and has major contributions to environmental history. It does because it brings proximity to and shows the importance of environmental history to the people. Also, important is that he shows the way humans effect the environment more and more in our everyday lives and shows the consequences that our choices have on the environment. McNeill most shows through his examination of the twentieth century how important it is to recognize the relationship humans and the environment have and how it is constantly evolving and in need of change.
Review by Amy
Many things occurred during the twentieth century, several wars such as Vietnam and both World Wars, humans sent a man to space and to the moon, The Great Depression occurred, and much more; socially, politically, economically, and environmentally. The twentieth century was a time of advancements in many areas. J.R. McNeill decided to focus on the twentieth century in his environmental history book entitled: “Something New Under the Sun.” No matter what the topic that McNeill states in each chapter of his book; whether it is soil erosion, degradation, water pollution, or air pollution, one thing remains the same, during the twentieth century, the intensity of change to the environment increased unusually faster than ever before. McNeill is not trying to prove that humans are the main contributor to ecological change. The impact of human factors on the environment is already proven. His goal when writing this book was to pique people’s interest and show that if we do not make smarter decisions with our environment, it will be difficult to adjust to the consequences that will occur.
Throughout McNeill’s book he compares early production, advancements, population, and technologies to the twentieth century to prove the difference in intensity. In this book, there are plenty of examples to back up what the author is trying to get across. One example used to show the difference from earlier years to the twentieth century on the topic of soil degradation was the use of fertilizers. We have discussed in class the use of fertilizers to replace nutrients into the soil that were diminished due to intense agriculture. We know that fertilizers can cause runoff and water pollution now but we also see them as a necessity to sustaining our population. McNeill discusses the population increase over time that makes it necessary to use fertilizers to put nutrients back into the soil, otherwise the world would need around 30 percent more land for growing crops (McNeill 25). McNeill concludes the chapter on soil degradation by saying that as of right now, the issue is minor, but on a larger time scale there may be greater human consequences (McNeill 49).
When discussing water use, McNeill uses charts to prove the increase in water usage since the 1700s. As he says frequently throughout his book, the twentieth century is known for its ability to find “cheap energy.” This energy then makes it easier to pump groundwater in large quantities. He is able to use his point of the distribution of wealth in our civilization as an issue with the hydrosphere by saying that poorer areas can not be as productive in managing their share like the richer areas. At the end of the twentieth century we have used up 18% of the world’s available fresh water and with population, economics, politics, and everything else that shapes our civilization intensifying, there is a chance we may run out quicker than we can adjust to. McNeill makes several more points with many different examples to help explain air pollution, water, soil, and other environmental issues by using maps, graphs, and other resources.
Basically, McNeill shows his readers that due to evidence from the past, it is easy to predict that we are in for ecological and societal problems later. In the twentieth century our population increased, fossil fuels were created, and arrays of changes in technology were made. All of these things have been created in order to fulfill the twentieth century policy: “try to make the most of resources, make Nature perform to the utmost, and hope for the best.” What McNeill believes is that we need to take ecology and history both into account to understand what our situation at the moment is to better understand the prospect of our future. Many environmental historians, politicians, and others alike will say that we do not know exactly where we stand with the environment or how much longer we have certain resources, McNeill is saying that we need to consider our history, the environments history, and ecology together in order to figure out what we need to do so any adjustments will be easier for humans to make now rather than later.